The wait to adopt a child got longer amid pandemic

The outbreak of the pandemic in March had brought the adoption process to a standstill for several reasons – lack of information, closure of courts and fear of contracting the infection
The Mukherjees had to wait for four additional months to adopt their daughter. (HT)
The Mukherjees had to wait for four additional months to adopt their daughter. (HT)
Updated on Feb 22, 2021 01:06 AM IST
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ByRupsa Chakraborty

The ongoing pandemic has left prospective parents (PPs), hoping to adopt a child, in uncertainty.

The outbreak of the pandemic in March had brought the adoption process to a standstill for several reasons – lack of information, closure of courts and fear of contracting the infection. These reasons refrained PPs from approaching adoption centres.

After being halted for April and May 2020 owing to the Covid-19 outbreak, the process of adoptions – considered lengthy and tedious – restarted in June. Since then, 437 children have been adopted domestically and internationally in the state.

Of these 378 were adopted by domestic applicants, while 59 children were adopted by international applicants between June and December last year, data provided by the State Adoption Resource Agency (SARA) stated. During the financial year 2019-20, 539 children were adopted domestically, while 69 were adopted internationally in Maharashtra.

“Even a day matters after waiting for years”

Amidst all the outbreak, the waiting period for PPs who were on the verge of getting a child, after already waiting for years, got further extended.

In December 2017, 36-year-old Bengaluru resident Digangana Mukherjee registered with the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) to adopt a child. After waiting for two years and seven months, the Mukherjees finally adopted their daughter Upolobdhi (meaning realisation) in July 2020, but not without going through trying times and difficult situations owing to the pandemic, which had stretched their waiting period by four months.

The couple were almost on the verge of getting a match for a baby in the first week of April 2020. But when the national lockdown was declared on March 25, they were left with no other choice but to wait.

“It may sound that four months is a small period of time. But after waiting for years, even one day matters,” said Mukherjee.

Finally, in the first week of July, they got their match from an adoption centre in Aurangabad. But due to the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases in Bengaluru, a complete lockdown was declared in the city from July 14 for a week.

“We needed to send notarised documents to the agency, but everything was closed due to the lockdown. My husband had to hunt for an advocate and begged him to sign the documents,” she recollected.

Their struggle did not end there. As the couple could not find a direct flight amid the lockdown restrictions, the couple left their four-year-old biological son with their close friend during the travel.

The duo travelled for 20 hours in their private vehicle and reached Aurangabad via Pune.

On July 28, the couple managed to reach the adoption centre where they met their daughter for the first time. The next day, they appeared at the district court for formalities, following which they decided to rest at a hotel for a day before heading back on July 30. However, the adoption centre did not allow the couple to take their five-month-old baby to a hotel out of fear of contracting Covid-19.

“So after completing the court formalities in the afternoon, we rested for three hours at the hotel. By 5pm, we reached the adoption centre and left for Bengaluru with our daughter. We drove the entire night. When one has to go through such hurdles after waiting for years, it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth,” said Mukherjee.

Similar to Mukherjee’s tale is the one of a 37-year-old government employee from Khar who waited for nine months to adopt his nephew.

In 2017, the boy, now aged seven, lost both his parents in a car accident, and was living with his paternal uncle since then. In 2018, the uncle applied to CARA for the adoption process, but it went haywire due to some technical issues.

In January 2020, through a new lawyer, they filed a petition at Bombay high court (HC) for ‘within family’ adoption. It generally takes two-three months for the completion of the process, but the pandemic stretched their waiting period for almost nine months.

“Even for the ‘within family’ criteria, the adoption process is an extremely strenuous. Though it was proven that I am the boy’s paternal uncle, I was asked to submit several notarised documents. Just when we were about to get the process done in March, the pandemic hit,” he said.

On January 14, 2021, the court approved the adoption petition.

PPs can’t meet the children

To adopt a child, a person needs to apply on CARA, following which the applicant’s financial stability, health conditions, among others, undergo scrutiny. A waiting number is handed out to acquire a match as per their requirement which takes a minimum of two years. Once PPs approve the profile of a shortlisted child, they are allowed to meet the child. However, they have the right to refuse adopting the child after a face-to-face interaction.

“This is the most crucial part of the adoption process. The eye and skin contact helps to develop a bond with the child,” said Siddharth Jagusthe, an advocate who also handles adoption cases in HC.

But during the beginning of the pandemic, CARA instructed SARAs to prohibit PPs from visiting the children for their safety. This dampened the spirit of many parents who waited for years to see a child.

“In the beginning of 2020, our centre had six requests for domestic adoption. But when the pandemic broke out, we had to follow the guidelines and did not allow PPs to meet the shortlisted children to maintain social distance. Later, four of the applicants withdrew their forms,” said Rahul Jadhav, in-charge of Adharashram adoption centre, Nashik.

Following this new rule, adoption centres started setting up virtual meetings with PPs where children would try to connect with the families through video calls. In fact, Mukherjee decided to adopt her daughter after conducting several virtual interactions with her.

However, for some parents it was quite an emotionally challenging phase as they craved for the human touch.

A 46-year-old Rajasthan resident had to wait for two years and three months before getting a call to see a child for adoption in Mumbai on March 18. But before they couple could reach the adoption centre, the national lockdown was declared.

“The first lockdown was only for 21 days so we decided to wait. But then it got extended for an unknown period. We could see the child only on video calls arranged by the counsellors. But we would grow restless as I wanted to hug and kiss the girl,” she said. Finally, in October, the family met the girl. Currently, they have filed an adoption petition in the district court to adopt the child.

International adoptions the most hit

Data shared by SARA shows that between 2015-2016 and 2020 (till December), 776 children have been adopted internationally from the state. Parents from the US and Europe adopt the highest number of children. However, due to the outbreak, the adoption centres as well as the judges refused to give permission for adoption until the pandemic curve flattened.

For instance, Kanjurmarg-based Vatsalya Trust did not record any international adoption last year since March. It was only in January 2021 that the court granted the approval to adopt two children by parents settled in the US and Italy. Similarly, the Adharashram centre recorded the first two international adoptions from the US last month, since March 2020.

“Before approving an international adoption petition for parents residing in the US – which has the highest number of Covid-19 cases – judges also have to consider the safety of a child in this uncertain situation. This is for the safety of the child and no one can be blamed for it,” said Rakesh Kapoor, one of the most prominent adoption lawyers in the city.

Due to the stringent rules of CARA, international adoption is gradually losing its shine. For instance, in 2015-2016, 183 children from the state were adopted by parents from other countries, which dropped to 69 in 2019-20. Experts also blame it on fewer children available for adoption.

Data shows that 3,300 Indian couples and 80 foreign couples are on the waitlist for adoption.

“There are 44 children at the centre, but only nine of them are up for adoption. Most domestic parents demand children in the age bracket of less than two years, which further narrows down the availability of children for adoption,” said Dr Vilas Ainapure, president, Vatsalya Trust, Mumbai.

In a bid to encourage adoption of specially-abled children, CARA has instructed SARAs to allow international parents to adopt only children with special needs such as those suffering from congenital heart defects or learning disabilities, among others.

“Indian parents generally don’t want to adopt such children. However, we have seen that foreign parents are quite welcoming in this matter. If we could remove this stringent rule, international adoptions could have increased. But at present, our priority is domestic adoption,” said a programme coordinator at SARA.

Cases fast tracked now’

Adoption lawyers and officers from the women and child development (WCD) department claim that Maharashtra is doing far better than other states in the adoption process.

“In August 2020, after the initial relaxation of the lockdown, the Bombay high court ordered to fasten the adoption processes. This helped us fast track the cases that were pending. Many other states refused to hear adoption petitions and adjourned them for an uncertain period. The court should be appreciated for it which brought smiles on parents’ faces,” said Kapoor.

Now, adoption centres are getting many PPs from neighbouring states for the process. “Considering the pleas of parents, CARA in December permitted to start the face-to-face interaction again by maintaining social distance,” said Dr Ainapure.

Kapoor said that only one adoption case from last year’s pending cases are left, with all others been resolved by December 2020.

Last week, the Mukherjees again visited Aurangabad to appear at the district court to get the final approval stamp of their adoption. But this time, they did not have to struggle like they did in July 2020.

“The roads and shops opened up. There were more people at the court. It seemed like good old pre-pandemic days,” said Mukherjee.

Six months down the line from the time of her adoption, she appreciates her four-month wait which helped her to coincidentally meet her daughter.

“In March, my daughter was only a month old. But as per the rules, only children above the age of two-and-a-half months are given for adoption. So, if we had undergone adoption in March, I would have gotten another baby, not her. Now I think, we were destined to wait to meet my daughter after those four months,” she said.

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